would never be friends. “The royal is going into the Desert Lands to get us an alliance with the Sand Eaters.” Their kind’s nickname for the Sand Dragons of the Desert Lands.

“Why? We’ve had no problems with them before.” “And that royal”—and Bercelak sneered a bit—“wants to keep it that way. But I don’t see why you’d have a problem babysitting — I thought you liked this one.” “I do. Bram’s sweet.” Sweeter than any other dragon she knew, which also made him the oddest dragon Ghleanna knew. “So is that it then? Rhiannon just needs me to make sure Bram gets there and back?” “Actually your taking him was my idea.”

Incredulous, Ghleanna asked, “Whatever the bloody hells for?” If anyone knew how ill-equipped Ghleanna was for babysitting duty, it was her brother. Even their own mother stopped allowing Ghleanna to babysit Bercelak after she’d dangled him over an active volcano, threatening to toss him in. And then there was that other time when she’d left Bercelak alone on a mountaintop when he still couldn’t fly, but not before she told him, “It’s not that Mum and Da don’t love you — they just don’t want you anymore. But I’m sure someone will come along who does.” Cruel perhaps, but he was such an arrogant little shit, even then, that she’d been unable to help herself. And her parents had eventually tracked down his sobbing, wailing ass and brought him home.

“Because,” her brother replied, “I need someone I can count on. Until recently, you were the most reliable of us all. I sincerely hope that hasn’t changed for good.” “Don’t go there, brother.”

“Over some male not worthy of you.”

He went there!

“I will not speak of that,” she growled and started to walk away. But her brother’s tail wrapped around her throat and yanked her back. “Ack!” “My sister,” he said, his tail tightening around her neck so she had trouble breathing, “would not be so foolish as to let any male cause her to lose all that she has worked so hard for. My sister,” he went on, ignoring Ghleanna’s talons tearing at him, “would never let some idiot dragon convince her that her exemplary skills on the battlefield make her less than any other female.” Bercelak began to slam her repeatedly into the cave floor like he used to when he’d gotten bigger and realized his sister had purposely tortured him for years. “And my sister would never, ever let some male who was never worthy of her in the first place, stop her from taking direct orders from her queen.” He slammed her to the ground one last time, the cave walls shaking, before he removed his tail. “That,” he said softly, “is not what a sister of mine would do, correct?” “You are a mean-hearted bastard!”

“But you already knew that about me, Ghleanna. You didn’t think that would change simply because I found a mate, did you?” Ghleanna stood, her claws kneading her bruised throat. “No. I really didn’t.” Her brother placed his claw on her shoulder, ignoring the way she flinched. “I know he hurt you, Ghleanna—” “No.” She had to stop him. She couldn’t hear anymore. “He didn’t hurt me, Bercelak. He made a fool of me. In front of my kin — in front of my troops.” “And he did that because he’s jealous.”

She had to laugh. “Of what?”

“Of the fact that he could never take you in a fair fight. It eats at him that you’re stronger than him, faster, definitely smarter, and worshipped by your troops. And instead of standing your ground, you let his centaur shit push you into hiding in your cave like some worthless human. Drinking yourself into a blind stupor and ignoring those who care for you. Like Mum and that bastard.” “You mean Da?”

“Call him what you like.” Bercelak’s perpetually scowling face softened a bit. “And, yes, sister, he’s well aware that this is partially his doing.” “It’s not really.” And Ghleanna swiped at the tears sliding down her snout. “My own stupidity got me here.” “Then fix it, sister.” He had both claws on her shoulders now. “Do this task for your queen with no questions. Bring a few of our kin with you. I hear things are winding down at Bolver Fields in the Southern Hills near the peacemaker’s home. Addolgar is there. He’ll be up for this trip, I think.” Ghleanna shook the rest of her pitiful tears off, pulled herself together. “Addolgar as well? You need both of us on this? Why?” “Because, if that weak kitten of a dragon gets the Sand Dragon King to sign this alliance. . it’ll make Rhiannon one of the strongest monarchs in this region in the last millennium.” “Oh. . that’s why.”

“There has to be someone else, Rhiannon. Anyone else.” “No one you’ll be as safe with as Ghleanna.” Bram sighed and tried to think of how to carefully explain this to his dangerously unstable queen without insulting her or her recently acquired kin. At least now, though, they were in her privy chamber and away from the prying eyes and ears of her court.

“These are delicate negotiations, Rhiannon. The Sand Dragon King has to be handled with care. Infinite care.” “Och! These moody foreign royals. How do you tolerate such moodiness, my friend?” Did she even listen to herself? Probably not.

“With patience,” he answered. “And none of the Cadwaladrs are known for their patience.” Rhiannon’s head tipped to the side, her blue eyes watching him. “But we are not speaking of the Cadwaladrs, are we, old friend? I sense that if we were speaking of any of Bercelak’s other kin this wouldn’t be such an issue. But we’re not. We’re speaking of Ghleanna.” Bram swallowed. “So?”

The queen began to circle Bram, the tip of her tail drawing little signs in the dirt floor as she moved. “Pretty, strong, defiant, difficult, and scarred Ghleanna.” “I know who she is, Rhiannon. I just don’t see—” “All those scars from all those battles, littering her body. Her long, strong body. Even her tail has scars — and an extra long. . tip.” “Stop.”

“And when she gets angry, Bram. . when she gets right up close and is threatening and vicious and cold; and you know in that second that you’ll never meet someone as deadly as—” “Please stop.” Bram realized he was panting.

“We’ve been friends a long time, Bram. Do you really think I’ve forgotten?” “I didn’t think you’d noticed.” No one else ever had — especially Ghleanna.

“Ghleanna is like the rest of her kin. Wonderful, but dense as thick marble.” “That’s lovely, Rhiannon.”

“I adore them all but you need to be more direct with them when you want something.” “She doesn’t know I exist. She never has.” “Because you aren’t direct with her. You’re direct with everyone else, but once Ghleanna comes around you’re suddenly a shy schoolboy.” “So? I should be like Feoras the Fighter instead?” Rhiannon winced. “Heard about that, did you?” “Everyone’s heard about it because the bastard’s told everyone.” “That annoying little rodent. I should have his veins removed.” When Bram didn’t say anything, Rhiannon noted, “No calls for mercy, peacemaker?” “Not this time, no. And stop looking at me like that. I never like cruelty from anyone. So it’s not as if I’m being particularly vicious here.” “It’s endearing that you think not calling for mercy is vicious.” Rhiannon waved all that away with her claw. “Look, when it comes to males, Ghleanna the Black doesn’t know what she wants. So you’ll have to show her.” “Show her?”

“It’s the perfect time. She’s absolutely ripe for the plucking.” Bram blinked. “What?”

“Vulnerable. That’s the word. So it’s the perfect time for a good, worthy dragon to swoop in and get her.” “Rhiannon!”

“What? I’m only trying to help.”

“That’s not helpful. That’s sneaky and deceitful.” She gave a soft snort. “Two words you’re well acquainted with.” “Only when we’re discussing politics. Ghleanna is not politics. She’s. . she’s. .” “Scarred? Perfectly, perfectly scarred?”

“Stop, Rhiannon.”

“So many scars,” the viper whispered in Bram’s ear. “All from the different weapons of those trying to kill her. She has a scar here”—her tail drew a long diagonal line across Bram’s back—“from hip to shoulder where an ogre from the Dark Hills tried to cut her in half. He didn’t succeed, though. And Ghleanna slaughtered their entire army. And when the healers sewed her up”—Rhiannon went on —“she insisted on being awake so that she’d fully understand that even a moment of being unaware had drastic consequences.” She pulled back slightly. “Why, Bram, you’re shaking.” Because he was desperately trying to control his cock. It wouldn’t do to get hard in front of his queen. No matter what the vision of Ghleanna getting her battle wounds tended did to him.

“You’re cruel, Rhiannon. You were cruel when we were young — and you’re cruel now.” “My mother was cruel, Lord Bram. I’m merely honest.” She kissed his snout. “And don’t ever say I’m not a good friend. I’m the best

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